By Tom Strini
Photo by Sara Stathas
The perfect neoclassical façade of the little house on Weil Street would fit right in on the set of a Rossini comic opera. The Tuscan gold-lapped siding brings Italian summer to mind. Somehow, the place just looks happy. You could stand on its welcoming porch, framed with white Doric columns, and sing.
And that just might happen at this house in Riverwest. This is Casa di Opera, new home of the Florentine Opera’s studio artists. The tenor and baritone live downstairs, the soprano and mezzo-soprano live upstairs.
Great premise for a comic opera, no?
The arrangement is offstage reality for soprano Julie Tabash, mezzo Erin Gonzalez, tenor Aaron Short and baritone Pablo Siqueiros during the 2013-14 season. The four young singers are the first of presumably many generations of young Florentine artists to occupy Casa di Opera. Casa is but a few steps around the corner from the company’s Riverwest headquarters and production center at 926 E. Burleigh St.
Every company with a young artist program (they call them YAPs in the trade) tries to match the singers with suitable housing. A few summer companies in out-of-the-way locations – Glimmerglass Opera in New York, for example – have on-site buildings where festival artists stay. Bigger companies sometimes offer specific stipends for housing. But housing and transportation, generally, are singers’ responsibilities. Debra Bell, marketing director at Pittsburgh Opera Theatre, had never heard of anything like the Casa di Opera. Neither had Dan Novak, who heads a similar but larger program, with 11 singers, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
This house’s living quarters are beyond all expectations – the singers are accustomed to dorm rooms and student apartments – and not having a troublesome commute helps to take the edge off.
It showed when the four young singers couldn’t stop smiling as they led a tour through the house. Rich hardwood floors, all new, run through both stories. Big windows flood every room with daylight. Both bathrooms have large walk-in showers.
Discreet doors make the bathrooms usable by both parties at once on each floor. And the well-appointed kitchen opens to a spacious dining area in the rear of the house.
“This is where we usually hang out,” Short says, leaning on the deep counter between the food-prep and dining areas. A door opens onto the wide staircase that turns up to the women’s floor. A sitting room with a big-screen TV fills the landing at the top of the steps.
Instead of closets, furniture-quality built-in armoires were installed in all four bedrooms. They make the rooms feel more spacious and are meant to meet the needs of opera singers specifically. The north bedroom on the second floor, for instance, is not just a bedroom; it’s a mezzo’s bedroom.
“My closet is just a little bigger than Julie’s,” says Gonzalez, with a laugh. “Mezzos have trousers roles, too, so we need extra space.”
All four appear completely charmed by their house. “Look at that,” says Short, pulling out his key ring. “They etched ‘TENOR’ right there on the key.” The personalized keys – a small but heart-warming detail – are given to all the singers.